The Annoying PPP (past-perfect progressive)

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It's only January, yet we may have already seen this year's winner in the category of Misapprehensions about Chinese Characters and the Nature of Language.  It appears in Xiaolu Guo's "‘Is this what the west is really like?’ How it felt to leave China for Britain" (The Guardian, 1/10/17).  Ms. Guo's long essay, an adapted extract from her forthcoming Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up, is preceded by this dismal epigraph:

Desperate to find somewhere she could live and work as she wished, moved from Beijing to London in 2002. But from the weather to the language and the people, nothing was as she expected.

Poor Xiaolu Guo!

The worst thing of all about her new life was the language.  I'll let her speak to that for herself:

I didn’t want to risk feeling even lonelier than I had in China. It was not just the physical loneliness, but cultural and intellectual isolation. By the time my 30th birthday party drew to a close, I was clear about my direction: I would have to start writing in another tongue. I would use my broken English, even though it would be extremely difficult.

When the birthday party was over, I mopped the floor and did the washing-up. An idea for a novel was already forming in my mind. I would make an advantage out of my disadvantage. I would write a book about a Chinese woman in England struggling with the culture and language. She would compose her own personal English dictionary. The novel would be a sort of phrasebook, recording the things she did and the people she met.

I had to overcome the huge obstacle of my poor English. I decided I didn’t want to go to language classes because I knew my impatience would kill my will, my threshold for boredom being just too low. Instead, I decided to teach myself. Perhaps this was a huge mistake? As I studied day and night I grew more and more frustrated with English as a language, but also as a culture.

The fundamental problem with English for me was that there is no direct connection between words and meanings. In Chinese, most characters are drawn and composed from images. Calligraphy is one of the foundations of the written language. When you write the Chinese for sun, it is 太阳 or 日, which means “an extreme manifestation of Yang energy”. Yang signifies things with strong, bright and hot energy. So “extreme yang” can only mean the sun. But in English, sun is written with three letters, s, u and n, and none of them suggests any greater or deeper meaning. Nor does the word look anything like the sun! Visual imagination and philosophical understandings were useless when it came to European languages.

Technically, the foremost difficulty for an Asian writer who wants to write in English is tense. Verb conjugations in English are, quite simply, a real drag. We Chinese never modify verbs for time or person, nor do we have anything like a subjunctive mood. All tenses are in the present, because once you say something, you mean it in your current time and space. There is no past or future when making a statement. We only add specific time indicators to our verbs if we need them. Take the verb “to go”. In Chinese it is 走, zou, and you can use zou in any context without needing to change it. But in English the verb has all the following forms: goes, went, gone, going. Mastering conjugations was a serious struggle for me, almost a dialectical critique of the metaphysics of grammar.

I particularly detested the past-perfect progressive tense, which I called the Annoying PPP: a continuous action completed at some point in the past. I felt giddy every time I heard the Annoying PPP; I just couldn’t understand how anyone was able to grasp something so complex. For example, my grammar book said: “Peter had been painting his house for weeks, but he finally gave up.” My immediate reaction, even before I got to the grammatical explanation, was: my God, how could someone paint his house for weeks and still give up? I just couldn’t see how time itself could regulate people’s actions as if they were little clocks! As for the grammar, the word order “had been” and the added flourishes like “ing” made my stomach churn. They were bizarre decorations that did nothing but obscure a simple, strong building. My instinct was to say something like: “Peter tries to paint his house, but sadness overwhelms him, causing him to lay down his brushes and give up his dream.”

Another curious realisation came when I discovered that I used the first-person plural too much in my everyday speech. In the west, if I said “We like to eat rice”, it would confuse people. They couldn’t understand who this “we” was referring to. Instead, I should have said “We Chinese like to eat rice”. After a few weeks, I swapped to the first-person singular, as in “I like to eat rice”. But it made me uncomfortable. After all, how could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first-person singular all the time? The habitual use of “I” requires thinking of yourself as a separate entity in a society of separate entities. But in China no one is a separate entity: either you were born to a non-political peasant household or to a Communist party household. But here, in this foreign country, I had to build a world as a first-person singular – urgently.

Still, the desire and will to work on a first book in English propelled me through the difficulties. Every day, I wrote a detailed diary, filled with the new vocabulary I had learned. The diary became the raw material for my novel, the one I had imagined while mopping the floor after my 30th birthday party: A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary for Lovers.

Since moving from Beijing to London in 2002, Guo has had a very successful career as a novelist, essayist, and filmmaker.  As early as 1991, she had published poetry and prose in Chinese, but after 2003, she is known for her writing in English. Unlike the Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose switch from Chinese to English was tortured (see "Abandoning one's mother tongue" [1/6/17]), Guo's transformation from Chinese to English was more dogged and determined.  Although there were plenty of things about English that she didn't like (such as "the Annoying PPP"), she simply decided that this was going to be the language she wrote in and she would make the most of it.  But the change from Chinese to English was also wrapped up with a change of national identity.  When a Chinese consular official mutilated her Chinese passport and threw it back at her, she knew that she no longer could be a Chinese citizen, so all the more she was determined to make her life in this adopted language and new land.

What fascinates me most about Guo, however, is a mysterious, haunting "third language" that lies somewhere beyond Chinese and English, and which — although it is very important for her — she can never quite capture, can not write anything in it:

In one recurrent dream, my dead Chinese grandmother speaks in my hometown dialect to my western boyfriend, and my western boyfriend responds to her in his language. Both seem to understand each other perfectly without a translator. I must have been using a hidden language to narrate the dream – neither Chinese nor English. It is a dreaming language. I desperately want to capture it, and write in it.

From "Xiaolu Guo: ‘One language is not enough – I write in both Chinese and English’" (The Guardian, 10/13/16).

What is fascinating about this "third language", the language of dreams, is that it somehow encompasses her "hometown dialect", which is a Wu topolect.  Guo desperately wishes to be able to express herself in this language of dreams, to write in it, yet she seems forever barred from doing so.  This, I believe, is the tragedy of all literate persons who are forced to write in a language that is not their true mother tongue.  I am grateful to Xiaolu Guo for evoking the pain of this separation.  At the same time, her facile remarks about Chinese characters and the nature of language lead me to believe that these misconceptions are directly related to, and indeed partly responsible for, her inability to express herself in the "third language" that she longs for.

[Thanks to Mark Swofford and John Grant Ross, author of Your Don't Know China and other books]



25 Comments »

  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 9:03 am

    "… the tragedy of all literate persons who are forced to write in a language that is not their true mother tongue"?

    I see no indication of Ms. Guo being "forced" to write in English. Unless you are referring to her earlier writing in Chinese (MSM) as opposed to her "hometown dialect," but then that would apply to a great many Chinese people.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 9:12 am

    Correct!

  3. Tim Taylor said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 10:22 am

    Guo's admission that she didn't know the word 'offer' may be an eloquent expression of cultural disorientation to an English-speaking readership, but it is also strangely exoticizing. Had she worked in international trading in China Guo would certainly have known what 'offer' meant: Chinese traders have the English term 'offer' as part of their ordinary working vocabulary and use it even when speaking Chinese.

  4. Gene Anderson said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 10:34 am

    If she could have stayed home, she wouldn't have been being taken advantage of…. Yeah, English is bizarre. One way is our use of little function words (could, would) instead of just decent old-fashioned tense-marker endings. Oh well. Spanish has a PPP too but I don't recall hearing it and I've rarely seen it used. Mongol has some cool verbal conjugation….

  5. Keith Robinson said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 10:49 am

    Two things strike me about this article .First” I decided I didn’t want to go to language classes because I knew my impatience would kill my will, my threshold for boredom being just too low.” I can fly to distant parts of the world and step off the plane and within minutes somebody will speak to me in English. Regardless of their ethnicity, religion, culture, native language system or writing practice, and the conclusion must be that even allowing for the fact that English may be a simpler language than some others , English is exceptionally well taught. All the Confucius Institutes in World will not elevate Mandarin Chinese to this status unless more thought is given as to how Chinese is actually taught to Foreigners.
    “The fundamental problem with English for me was that there is no direct connection between words and meanings. In Chinese, most characters are drawn and composed from images.” That may well be true but as a native English speaker what we look for is precisely this link between the phonic and the alphabetical letter.
    When learning Mandarin Chinese I think we should emphasise the importance of linking the strokes to the phonic were ever possible. Now Chinese Teachers often say “ There are just too many different combinations of stokes for the same phonic, that it would be too complicated for English students to remember them.” But this is not what English Teachers say to Chinese students when they are learning English. They don’t say “ There are just too many different ways of spelling the same sound in English , that Chinese students would find it too complicated to learn.”
    No, instead they teach:- “This is what is sounds like –“so”. This is what it looks like “sew”. “This is what it sounds like “ so”. This is what it looks like “ sow”. “This is what it sounds like “so”. This is what it looks like “so”.
    Why is it that when a Chinese person sings a song in Chinese ( for example “Frozen”) they can substitute the melody for the tones , but still understand the meaning of the song?
    Here it is less plausible to argue that it is the context that gives the meaning, because often song lyrics are not grammatically or structurally correct. In fact song lyrics can be quite meaningless, and yet that very confusion can be understood by the listener. In the example of a song, the tones are completely missing, so how does a Chinese person manage to make sense of it if the tones have the importance they say they do have in understanding Chinese?
    So my thinking is I can change the character, I can change the tone, I can omit the tones completely, but what is consistent in all cases is the phonic.
    So although Chinese Teachers emphasise the importance of tones in speaking Chinese, and the importance of the pictorial content in written Chinese, they themselves actually pay more attention to the phonic. However it is such a reflex action, rather like breathing, that it is performed without any conscious effort.
    An analogy would be that most men think women look beautiful. So why do women wear makeup? They do it because it enhances their beauty. Would they still look beautiful without make up? Of course! So phonics in Mandarin is like the bone structure of the language and the tones and the pictorial element in characters are the makeup. They enhance the meaning but can be dispensed with if necessary.
    Ironically the importance of understanding the phonic component and where it is carried in the character is the one aspect Chinese Teachers neglect to emphasize.

  6. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 11:37 am

    In reference to what I wrote above: unless one's mother is a highly educated person who naturally speaks in a dialect that's quite close to the school-taught standard, almost everyone is "forced to write in a language [variety] that is not their true mother tongue," aren't they?

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 11:45 am

    I have a Spanish friend who is a prominent writer in Spanish, though her native language, which she still uses with family and friends, is Catalan. However — her schooling having been entirely under the Franco regime — she never learned standard Catalan, and when she publishes in Catalan she needs professional translators to render her writing from Spanish.

  8. Craig said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 3:18 pm

    The romanticized hanzi explanation of "extreme manifestation of Yang energy" makes me want to retch with extreme manifestations of energy, whether yin or yang.

  9. David Marjanović said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 4:00 pm

    I particularly detested the past-perfect progressive tense, which I called the Annoying PPP: a continuous action completed at some point in the past. I felt giddy every time I heard the Annoying PPP; I just couldn’t understand how anyone was able to grasp something so complex.

    She's in good company there. The English aspect system is mostly not shared with the rest of Europe either. Millions of German-speaking children are in the same situation every year…

  10. julie lee said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 4:01 pm

    Thank you Victor Mair for the interesting post on Xiaolu Guo's views on her experience learning English.

    I was particularly interested in her observation that she was inhibited in using the English word "I" because the individual was not stressed in the Chinese communist society she grew up in. It occurred to me that that was also the case historically in pre-communist, traditional China before the twentieth century, when individualism was not stressed, and what was stressed was the person-as-member-of-a-collective. Perhaps that is why the personal pronoun is often missing in Chinese sentences, especially in Literary Chinese. For instance, when a phrase "he/she told her/him" was expressed as "xiang gao" (相告, mutually told), without a personal pronoun. Coming from English, I always found "xiang gao" 相告 (or xiang + Verb) peculiar. Perhaps not stressing the person as an individual-apart-from-the-collective explains why human rights is not well developed in China, for human-rights abuse (abuse of the individual) can then always be justified as necessary for the larger, collective, good.

  11. David Morris said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 4:41 pm

    I had often been wondering how common (or rare) past perfect continuous actually is, but I finally gave up.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 5:57 pm

    My wife would go to any length to avoid using the personal pronoun "I" (both in Chinese and in English, after she learned the latter language). For her it was almost a sin to say "I".

  13. Eidolon said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 6:30 pm

    "In one recurrent dream, my dead Chinese grandmother speaks in my hometown dialect to my western boyfriend, and ***my western boyfriend responds to her in his language.*** Both seem to understand each other perfectly without a translator. I must have been using a hidden language to narrate the dream – neither Chinese nor English. It is a dreaming language. I desperately want to capture it, and write in it."

    Am I wrong to interpret this differently? I've emphasized the fragment that strikes me, since it indicates her boyfriend is not responding to her grandmother in her hometown dialect, but in, presumably, English, while both are, somehow, able to understand each other perfectly, which Guo finds incredibly significant. The whole paragraph, and indeed the entire article, seems to be about Guo's desire to capture and write a third language that represents the bridge between the three languages she knows – Mandarin Chinese, English, and what she calls 'Zhejiang dialect' – and particularly between English and the two Chinese varieties. That is to say, the dreaming language is a language in which her boyfriend and her grandmother could communicate in while speaking their native tongues – 'Zhejiang dialect' and English, respectively, as though there is no barrier of mutual intelligibility.

    She repeats this at the end:

    "The dream language ***exists beyond verbal languages.*** But it’s my real native language. I want to understand the dream in which my dead grandma converses with my western boyfriend. One day I’ll fathom it; that mysterious language will eventually belong to me."

    I can't see this being her 'Zhejiang dialect' because that is clearly a verbal language, though perhaps Guo doesn't understand it as such since she has, as said, rather inadequate knowledge about linguistics. Or maybe she is hinting that it is between the lines as literary authors tend to do. But I have to say that I read the entire article as a comment about linguistic alienation resulting from full-blown trilingualism, which caused the author to feel as though there is no language that is actually native to her. Many writers of English whose native languages are not English probably feel the same way.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 7:46 pm

    What are the three languages of that "full-blown trilingualism"?

    The o.p. speaks of "this 'third language', the language of dreams, … that … somehow encompasses her 'hometown dialect', which is a Wu topolect." The o.p. very carefully does not say that the third language is precisely identical with Wu topolect.

    Yiyun Li had a similar hankering for a lost private / inner language, one which was also connected to maternal images and Communist deracination:

    =====

    Can one’s intelligence rely entirely on the public language; can one form a precise thought, recall an accurate memory, or even feel a genuine feeling, with only the public language?

    My mother, who loves to sing, often sings the songs from her childhood and youth, many of them words of propaganda from the nineteen-fifties and sixties. But there is one song she has reminisced about all her life because she does not know how to sing it. She learned the song in kindergarten, the year Communism took over her home town; she can remember only the opening line.

    =====

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 7:57 pm

    In a forthcoming post, I will discuss the IBM motto, "THINK". The post will also go into a brief analysis of the Cartesian maxim, "I think, therefore I am". I have heard many people translate that into Mandarin as "wǒ xiǎng suǒyǐ wǒ shì 我想所以我是" (622,000 ghits), but it sounds absurd. A somewhat more literary rendering is "wǒ sī gù wǒ zài 我思故我在" (442,000 ghits), but even that seems an odd statement to make in Chinese. I am not confident that either of these translations of "Cogito, ergo sum // Je pense, donc je suis" is philosophically admissible.

  16. Eidolon said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 9:08 pm

    "What are the three languages of that full-blown trilingualism?"

    She mentions "Mandarin, English, Zhejiang dialect" as her spoken languages, and also that she can converse in a "mix of Chinese, English and German". She talks about the alienating and confusing experience of traveling to & living in so many different places while speaking and writing in three different languages. The third, presumably, is German, and not her dreaming language because that's what she *can't* write/capture. I interpret her dreaming language as something more like an universal language, and the pain she feels as one of language alienation, resulting from the combination of constantly using different languages while at the same time moving around distinct language environments.

    I think she makes this explicit in the following:

    "I worked on my memoir in English, largely set in China, and conversed with myself in a mix of Chinese, English and German. In those foreign cities, I woke up with confused dreams. I noted them down until I realised the linguistic disunity in my narrative. Then my pen froze again. My languages alienate me. They don’t make me feel at home. They tell me I live in the wrong place. They make me stateless. That’s the nature of my writing life."

    I guess you can read it as longing for an authentic inner voice, perhaps associated with the native language of her grandmother, but would it really help in Guo's case? It seems to me that her condition is more the result of her cosmopolitan circumstances, and of the "burden" of having to think, write, and speak in all her various tongues, and to choose between them. I know that I can partially empathize with her condition, and that for writers who are fully bilingual, choosing which language to express themselves in can often be agonizing. But then, ambiguity and multiple readings have always been the nature of literature and, I'd say, of language itself.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 9:34 pm

    "Since I left China 14 years ago, my everyday writing life seems to be a battle between the language I think in and the language I write in. Sometimes, before my pen touches paper, none of my languages – Mandarin, English, Zhejiang dialect – come out; my hand freezes and I stare at my notebook or a scene in the street, my thoughts lost in translation. I cannot write – even though I’ve written several books in Chinese, and a few more in English; and I still feel there’s so much in me screaming to be heard. But something is deeply suppressed. My tongue is tied. I cannot express my thoughts with only one language. So I translate. I use one word to find another word. I try to write a transcript which is in both Chinese and English, a text that is alive and true for both cultures I am living in."

    VHM: emphasis added

  18. Edwin Schmitt said,

    January 12, 2017 @ 4:14 am

    When I read through this piece two days ago it struck me that as a writer she was unaware of certain theories about language that many linguists take for granted. Regardless if we draw from von Humboldt, de Courtney, Saussure, Peirce, Chomsky, or Lakoff, there are some similarities regarding the way linguists think about language that just don't fit what Guo was writing about. And while some linguists in China do have their own theories that don't fit with the basic Euro-American model, I have to wonder how many writers in any language ever take time to learn about any kind of linguistic theory? And when they do, is it obvious from their writing? Tolkien comes to mind for me, although I am not entirely sure just how much linguistic theory he was aware of seeing that he was more of a philologist. I think my point is, when Guo talks about "extreme manifestation of Yang energy" to explain the concept of "sun" she could be drawing from a folk understanding of language. I'm not sure it helps to say that folk understandings are wrong, as much as they are limited to explaining the language of the culture from which they emerge. In fact, digging into such folk understandings are useful because, if we are a bit more reflective, it will help linguists think about how their understanding of language might be influenced by their own cultural biases. Perhaps such reflection would help get us closer to that "third language" Guo talks about. Years ago I had the exact same dream where my mother is speaking in English and my ex-wife's parents, who can only speak the Leshan dialect of Sichuanhua, are able to understand without any trouble (and vice-versa).

    @Victor Mair Looking forward to your post on THINK! Not sure if it would be useful to you, but the anthropologist Peter Little has done extensive work on IBM and talks about the ideological implications of THINK. http://nyupress.org/books/9780814770924/

  19. Rose Eneri said,

    January 12, 2017 @ 1:08 pm

    Well, that was confusing! So in Chinese, I refer to the sun by describing it as extreme yang, which itself is described as strong, bright and hot energy. "But in English, sun is written with three letters, s, u and n, and none of them suggests any greater or deeper meaning." But, how do you describe strong or bright or energy in Chinese? On some level there must be abstract concepts, the words/symbols for which must be random, that is, not based on something else. So, the idea that a word can be unique and random is not absent (and therefore strange) in Chinese, it is just much more common in Western languages.

    So then, if I ask a group of Chinese speaking dinner guests what flavor ice creme each of them wants, they will individually reply "We want vanilla. We want chocolate. We want peach"? Does Chinese even have a first person singular pronoun? Suppose the guests take a poll and they all want vanilla. How does the spokesperson reply? We want vanilla? Or do they modify the "we" as some speakers of American English modify "you" e.g. we all, all we all, we's?

    And regarding the annoying PPP, the English version of the house painting is simply factual. Ms Guo's suggested phrasing (Peter tries to paint his house, but sadness overwhelms him, causing him to lay down his brushes and give up his dream.) adds layers of presumed causality. Can Chinese speakers really not express a PPP without attributing intent or emotion?

  20. Ellen Kozisek said,

    January 12, 2017 @ 1:23 pm

    Perhaps, Rose, the answer lies in the disctinction between literary Chinese that people write in, and the various different Chinese topolects that people speak in. One wouldn't order an ice cream in Chinese. One would order it in Mandarin, or such.

  21. Martha said,

    January 12, 2017 @ 3:20 pm

    My problem with the example of Peter's unsuccessful house painting project is that Guo's suggestion ("Peter tries to paint his house…") doesn't even clearly communicate that he ever even started painting the way "had been painting" does. (Though that's try's fault; "Peter works on painting his house…" would.)

  22. Cervantes said,

    January 12, 2017 @ 4:29 pm

    I didn’t want to risk feeling even lonelier than I had in China. […] I would have to start writing in another tongue. I would use my broken English, even though it would be extremely difficult.

    One can admire her courage and determination, and for what it's worth I do, but when it comes to this kind of thing:

    For example, my grammar book said: “Peter had been painting his house for weeks, but he finally gave up.” My immediate reaction, even before I got to the grammatical explanation, was: my God, how could someone paint his house for weeks and still give up? I just couldn’t see how time itself could regulate people’s actions as if they were little clocks!

    I might just tell her she should have gone to those language classes.

  23. John Swindle said,

    January 12, 2017 @ 7:20 pm

    Rose: Replying that you want vanilla doesn't require a pronoun in Mandarin. Yes, the pronoun is available if needed. Yes, for the spokesperson's report of a poll, "We all want vanilla" is indeed possible.

    By the way, I was warned long ago not to say "I myself" in Mandarin. It's redundant in English but ridiculous in literal translation: who else "myself"?

    Doesn't English also say "you" more often than Mandarin, other Chinese languages, or especially Japanese?

  24. Wentao said,

    January 13, 2017 @ 5:09 am

    I find the house-painting example very bizarre. It seems that the author never learned what aspects mean and how grammatical structures are indispensable in communicating meaning. Even in Chinese/MSM, I would say 彼得已经刷了好几个星期的房子,但最终还是放弃了 or 彼得刷了几个星期房子之后,还是放弃了, which are full of different but equally "obscuring" grammatical particles like 已经, 了, 还是, 之后. Unless Ms. Guo would prefer something like "Peter paints house for weeks. He gives up"?

    As for the extreme Yang energy example, one could easily make the argument that Chinese doesn't do a good job either: the form 太 has nothing to do with its meaning "great", nor does 阳/陽 depict a sun. The simplified character may contain a sun 日, but what about the ear radical? The traditional character is totally undecipherable if one doesn't know about 形声 principles.

    Also, I feel whoever complains about verb conjugations in English should be sentenced to learning any modern European language, if not Latin and Greek…

  25. Dave Cragin said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 1:03 am

    Rose – Yes, in Chinese, "all" is added to "we want." Hence, they say "we all want…"

    我们都想要… Women dou xiang yao… (Women = we, dou = all, xiang yao = want to have)

    And individual would say 我想要 Wo xiang yao (Wo = I, xiang hao = want to have)

    Chinese parallels English in this way. A difference is that in Chinese the women/wo (we/I) can be dropped depending on context.

    As a native English speaker, the way things are said in Chinese make much logical sense to me. Considering that the languages have very different origins, this is always interesting to me.

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